Romney and Manchin: How We Compromised on COVID-19 Relief

Mitt Romney is a Republican senator from Utah. Joe Manchin is a Democratic senator from West Virginia.

Coming off the most bitter, divisive presidential election (and post-election) in modern American history, expectations have been understandably low for Congress’s ability to agree on anything — even another round of covid-19 relief. Progress has been nonexistent for several months, with talks at an impasse between a comprehensive $2.2 trillion stimulus package put forth by Democrats and a much more targeted $500 billion bill proposed by Republicans. These proposals were denounced and dismissed by the opposing party as dead on arrival.

In mid-November, after months of stagnation, a small group of senators — four Republicans and four Democrats — convened for a socially distanced dinner hosted by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). In addition to breaking bread, we traded ideas on how to break the stalemate. We agreed to keep talking. What followed became a marathon: four weeks of hours-long Zoom calls, often multiple times a day, with the goal of crafting an emergency relief bill. We always understood that our bill was not going to be the final answer, but we knew it would be necessary to carry the American people through the early spring and prevent our nation’s health-care crisis from becoming an economic catastrophe.

We started with the emergency priorities we agreed on — including some measures in the Cares Act that were set to expire this month. Millions of Americans lost their jobs this year through no fault of their own, and with pandemic unemployment assistance running out as the virus rages on, jobless Americans and their families are set to lose a critical lifeline right before the holidays. We agreed there should be an extension. And there was unanimity on the need to provide sufficient funding to ensure efficient distribution of covid-19 vaccines, support testing and tracing programs, and support front-line health-care workers.

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) saved an estimated 2.3 million jobs and kept the lights on for thousands of small businesses during months of slashed revenue. With many shops, restaurants and mom-and-pop stores on the brink of closure again as new lockdowns and restrictions loom, there was consensus on jumpstarting PPP to allow those hit hardest to apply for a second forgivable loan.

We divided ourselves into smaller working groups to finesse the details of each section. We found additional agreement on funding for transportation, emergency assistance to keep food on the table, education, rental assistance and extending student-loan forbearance.

Finally, we stayed firm on keeping the price tag of this emergency relief bill at about $900 billion — a significant departure from the $2.2 trillion package that Democrats proposed before the election but more than the $500 billion package offered by Senate Republicans. In other words, a compromise.

Two sticking points remained. Unsurprisingly, they were the same issues that had long stalled negotiations: funding for state, local and tribal governments; and liability protections for businesses, schools and health-care facilities. Given that this disagreement had persisted for nearly six months, there was no easy way out.

After weeks of negotiating, it became clear that our “908 coalition” was really two groups. Everyone agreed on $748 billion to extend emergency assistance for the unemployed, pass another round of PPP, and provide rental assistance and funding for vaccines. A second, smaller group supported taking the additional step of compromising on $160 billion in aid for state, local and tribal governments in exchange for liability protections for employers, small businesses, nonprofits, schools and churches. With bipartisan agreement solidifying on the $748 billion portion, the smaller group was determined to find an acceptable solution as well.

In the end, we reached a bipartisan compromise. The outcome of our discussions is a two-part emergency relief package: a $748 billion bill that meets the emergency needs of the nation. It funds a second round of small-business assistance; extends unemployment assistance for 16 weeks with a $300 weekly federal supplement; and includes necessary funding for testing, tracing and vaccine distribution. A separate package includes $160 billion in state, local and tribal funding, and liability protections for businesses, schools, churches and health-care facilities.

We realize that the smaller bill will not be popular in our respective parties. Each of us agreed on including a provision we would not have supported on its own. We believe that the only way to get one is to allow both — or we’re left with nothing. It’s not perfect, but no compromise is.

In addition to our bipartisan, bicameral legislation, these talks revealed an important truth: that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it is possible to find areas of common interest and to compromise in good faith without violating our principles. We don’t doubt that this legislation will have its critics, but we are confident that it provides the emergency covid-19 relief our nation desperately needs to get us all through the early spring. We urge Senate and House leadership and the White House to take up our bipartisan legislation now. Congress should not leave town before passing an emergency covid-19 relief package.